Friday, June 1, 2012

Back to the Future


Perhaps our greatest post-WWII historian resides in two books: The Politics of War, 1890 - 1920 and Liberty Under Siege.

Walter Karp died in 1989, not long after completing Liberty, at the age of 55. He did most of his work for Harper's magazine, under the guidance of Editor-in-Chief Lewis Lapham (our greatest post-war magazine editor). Liberty Under Siege tells the maddening, heartbreaking story of the hijack of our republic, one of many: 1976 - 1988. It begins with the giddy enthusiasms and hopes of our Bicentennial, the overthrow of Nixon, the end to the Vietnam War. A new age. Then came Jimmy Carter, presumably elected on the winds of goodness. To quote General James Mattoon Scott in Seven Days in May, and as brilliantly detailed by Karp: "He was not just a weak sister. He was a criminally weak sister." Not for peace and domestic prosperity, as was the case with President Jordan Lyman in the Frankenheimer movie, but in the face of Restorationists, Oligarchs, Mass Murderers, and Thieves. The republic died here, and has yet to be resurrected. Karp's book is the best one we have on that enormously important point of turning -- that moment "when the Devils had they day, and Hawks stole something living from the gambol on the field."

It had happened before. The Politics of War, Karp's masterpiece and the definitive history of that time, embraces the eruption of community, civilization, citizenship, and hatred of the undeserving rich snuffed out by the war politics of McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt (a racist thug and that most favorite of all America-Firsters), and Woodrow Wilson -- Wilson, the terrible swift sword against all things progressive and human. (Reading this book and remembering Glenn Beck's howls against Wilson as the "Father of Progressivism" shows just what that piece of toilet buildup and his bootlickers were all about.)

An excerpt:
In 1896 the leaders of the Republican Party had felt considerable trepidation when they forged their alliance with the major industrial and financial interests of the country. After the distractions of the Spanish-American War they had no fears whatever. The grand alliance appeared to be all that it had promised to be -- the foundation of permanent Republican supremacy, the practical triumph of discipline, organization, and wealth over the republican sentiments of the American people.

What the Republican oligarchy envisioned was an all-encompassing system of mutual aid. A handful of finance capitalists, preferably led by the prudent J.P. Morgan, were to take command of the national economy with the help of the party oligarchy. They would gain control of the nation's railroads, consolidate its industries into giants trusts, and monopolize control of capital under the aegis of the Republican Party. The financiers, in turn, would use their immense wealth and influence to protect and enhance the oligarchy's power. Working in close personal consultation, the partners expected to divide between them the two chief spoils of the public world. The Republican oligarchy would rule the people; Morgan and his colleagues would manage the economy -- with one eye to the needs and interests of the Republican leadership. To facilitate statesmanship among the capitalists Mark Hanna [McKinley's Karl Rove] presided over an extragovernmental body known as the National Civic Federation, which was composed of leading financial and industrial magnates and a few safe, compliant trade union leaders, including Samuel Gompers. The Federation's chief task was to mediate labor disputes, encourage "conservative" trade unionism, and in general, as a labor member put it, "bring into closer and more harmonious relation those two apparently antagonistic forces," capital and labor, the most obvious point of strain in the Republicans' voting coalition.

The new political order -- it was sometimes called "the system of '96" -- had some aspects of a bloodless coup. In the years after the Spanish-American War the national Republican Party became the most centralized, the most rigidly disciplined ruling party the American Republic has ever known. In the Senate, where the oligarchy convened, Republican senators took their orders from Nelson Aldrich, the "boss of the Senate" and a trio of his appointed lieutenants; they were known collectively as "the four." In the House of Representatives, Speaker Joe Cannon of Illinois could marshal virtually the entire voting strength of the party minions for every arbitrary ruling and every obstructionist tactic he deemed essential for the good of the party. All this display of party discipline was impressive enough, for a time, to the American electorate. The national Republican Party, still trailing wisps of its ancestor glory, looked like a governing party, and its leaders generally comported themselves with statesmanlike gravity. As long as nobody asked them to do very much, no one could well dispute their claim that they alone provided the country with "responsible party government." Under their hegemony, America was fast becoming what Senator Lodge fatuously described as an "aristocratic republic." Firmly in control of the state party organizations, of most of the metropolitan press, of most of the political money in the country, with a jingo foreign policy to divert the electorate, the Republican oligarchy appeared to have nothing to fear, least of all from their token rivals, the Democrats, whose Congressional leaders were in all but open complicity with their Republican counterparts. By 1900 the national Republican machine had achieved the enviable position of serving the narrowest of interests -- itself and its big business allies -- while enjoying the support of a majority of those who bothered to vote. After the 1896 election fewer and fewer Americans bothered, which only made the oligarchy's task that much easier.

Yet the system had a flaw and that flaw was radical. Instead of serving as the indestructible foundation of party power, the new economy of finance capitalism was in fact a foundation of quicksand. The aging hierarchs of the Republican Party still talked of the "manufacturing interest" and the "propertied classes." Such nineteenth-century terms, however, ill-suited the new economy they had helped to create, an economic system in which few could control everything without proportionately owning much; in which bankers, not manufacturers, held the fate of industrial enterprise in their hands. The new finance capitalism was as fluid as water. A powerful financier might control a great economic asset one day only to discover on the next that a rival magnate had raided the stock market and wrested away his control. The new finance capitalists were utterly lawless. They bribed, they swindled, they defrauded; they ignored statute law, defied common law, betrayed fiduciary trusts. Worse, they were headlong, frenetic pursuers of monopoly, for competitive firms were useless to men incapable of running them and who would gain no further accession of economic power even if they could. The finance capitalists could not manage the economy; they could only prey upon it. They could not even manage themselves. The politically minded House of Morgan might wish to be discreet, might be reluctant to antagonize the public and make difficulties for the Republican oligarchy, but there were sharks in the waters of finance capitalism whom mighty Morgan could not control, against whom he felt compelled to do battle, inevitably with his rivals' weapons. It was virtually impossible for any finance capitalist to be more politic than the least politic among them. Hanna's vision of statesmanlike capitalists working in harness with the Republican oligarchy was only an old man's pipe dream.

In the failure of the new finance capitalists to serve the interests of their political allies, in the shocking spectacle of their lawless power lay the mainspring for a second national reform movement which was to provide the immediate background to America's entry into the First World War -- the revolt of the American middle classes against political and economic oligarchy, a revolt known at the time and ever since as the progressive movement.
*
The triumph of Wilson and the war party struck the American Republic a blow from which it has never recovered. If the mainspring of a republican commonwealth -- its "active principle," in Jefferson's words -- is the perpetual struggle against oligarchy and privilege, against private monopoly and arbitrary power, then that mainspring was snapped and deliberately snapped by the victors in the civil war over war.
Ths sheer fact of war was shattering in itself. Deaf to the trumpets and the fanfare, the great mass of Americans entered the war apathetic, submissive, and bitter. Their honest sentiments had been trodden to the ground, their judgment derided, their interests ignored. Representative government had failed them at every turn. A President, newly reelected, had betrayed his promise to keep the peace. Congress, self-emasculated, had neither checked nor balanced nor even seriously questioned the pretexts and pretensions of the nation's chief executive. The free press had shown itself to be manifestly unfree -- a tool of the powerful and a voice of the "interests." Every vaunted progressive reform had failed as well. Wall Street bankers, supposedly humbled by the Wilsonian reforms, had impudently clamored for preparedness and war. The Senate, ostensibly made more democratic through the direct election of senators, had proven as impervious as ever to public opinion. The party machines, supposedly weakened by the popular primary, still held elected officials in their thrall. Never did the powerful in America seem so willful, so wanton, or so remote from popular control as they did the day war with Germany began. On that day Americans learned a profoundly embittering lesson: They did not count. Their very lives hung in the balance and still they did not count. That bitter lesson was itself profoundly corrupting, for it transformed citizens into cynics, filled free men with self-loathing, and drove millions into privacy and depair.
Isolated, they nursed in private their bitterness and contempt -- the corrupting consolation of cynicism. Millions more could not withstand the force of the new state that had risen. It was easier, by far, to surrender to the powerful and embrace their new masters, to despise with the powerful the very opinions they themselves had once held and to hound with the powerful their fellow citizens who still held them -- the corrupting consolation of submission. Millions more simply bowed to the ways of oppression, to official lies and false arrests, to "slacker raids" and censored newspapers, to saying nothing, feeling nothing, and caring nothing -- the corrupting consolation of apathy.